“Cleopatra to the Asp”*

*poem by Ted Hughes (1930-1998) from “Lupercal”, London: Faber & Faber, 1960.

From the website of the Open University:

Relationship to Classical text Cleopatra speaking to the asp before her suicide, anticipating the relationship between Egypt and Augustan Rome. Metamorphoses suggests Hughes’ early interest in Ovid. Imagines Cleopatra’s final thoughts before taking her own life

Comment  Note how Cleopatra’s curse to ‘Ruin [Augustus] with virginity’ in the final stanza of this poem is followed by the fertility rites in the next sequential poem, ‘Lupercalia’. Indeed, the figures alluded to in this poem were also known to have participated in the festival which ‘Lupercalia’ celebrates.

This poem is from Hughes’s second collection of poems Lupercal. Taking its name from the Lupercalia fertility festival of ancient Rome, Hughes laces his poems with images and symbols associated with the festival to the effect that the poems read like a series of incantations in an attempt to reinvigorate his writing.”

“The bright mirror I braved: the devil in it

Loved me like my soul, my soul:

Now that I seek myself in a serpent

My smile is fatal.

Nile moves in me; my thighs splay

Into the squalled Mediterranean;

My brain hides in that Abyssinia

Lost armies foundered towards.

Desert and river unwrinkle again.

Seeming to bring them the waters that make drunk

Caesar, Pompey, Antony I drank.

Now let the snake reign.

A half-deity out of Capricorn,

This rigid Augustus mounts

With his sword virginal indeed; and has shorn

Summarily the moon-horned river

From my bed. May the moon

Ruin him with virginity! Drink me, now, whole

With coiled Egypt’s past; then from my delta

Swim like a fish toward Rome.”

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